Interviewed by Stephen Kelly and Judith Jones, 18 June 2015
David, let’s begin with looking at how you actually came to join Granada Television.
I was working for Tribune and running a campaign for Nuclear Disarmaments Paper, Sanity, and I started writing a series of articles on Conscientious Objectors in the First World War – this was at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the war – and the articles were picked up by the Managing Director of the publishers MacGibbon and Kee who had just been taken over by the Granada Group. MacGibbon and Kee published my book, which was called Objection Overruled, and was actually reissued only last year on the hundredth anniversary of the First World War and Reg Davis-Poynter, the Managing Director went to Sidney Bernstein and said something like ‘You might be interested in talking to this fellow’ so I got a summons from Mr Bernstein at Golden Square, Granada Television. I’d no idea then even who Mr Bernstein was and certainly no idea what he wanted to talk to me about but I went along. I asked at the desk for Mr Bernstein. They said, ‘Which Mr Bernstein? Sidney or Cecil?’ I said, “I don’t know! This Mr Bernstein wants to talk to me.” So they made the enquiry and it turned out to be Sidney so I was sent up to the top and it turned out that Sidney wanted to talk to me, to sound me out whether I would be interested in joining Granada. His way of sounding me out was that the Sunday Times was just doing a big, full-page profile of him and he had the proofs and he said to me, ‘Read through these proofs and tell me what you think.’ So I read through the profile and he said, ‘OK, so what do you think?’ I said, “I think that’s pretty good.” He said, ‘Well, what about this bit – “Socialist millionaire”?’ I said, “Well, but you are a Socialist and you are a millionaire.” And he said, ‘Well, what about this? It refers to my having being a boxer and refers to my cauliflower ear!’ And I looked at him and I said, “Well, yes, but you have got a cauliflower ear!” At this point he burst out laughing and went on to ask me more specific questions about what I’d done and what I wanted to do and at the end he said that he’d be in touch. I thought, well, I don’t really know what that was about but within the week I got a letter from him inviting me to come and join Granada as one of their press officers. Well, I was a journalist and didn’t like press officers, didn’t like Public Relations but I thought, well, if this is a way of getting into Granada which I at least already knew of as the most radically socially-conscious of the new television companies, I thought this sounded pretty good so I accepted the job, became a press officer for Granada.
I was a very poor press officer because I wasn’t any good at publicising things and being a PR man and after a fairly short while (I think about a year) Sidney summoned me and said, ‘How are you getting on?’ and I said “I hope I’m doing alright.” And he said, ‘Well, I think you are pretty useless as a press officer!’ And I thought, oh well, back to Tribune or somewhere like that! And he said, ‘I want to send you up to Manchester to work on Scene at 6.30.” Well, Scene at 6.30 was the daily news magazine programme and it was already a renowned programme with people like Mike Scott, Brian Truman, Bill Grundy, Chris Kelly as presenters and wonderfully fresh, very Northern Mancurian daily programme. I loved the idea of going up to Manchester so I accepted that with alacrity so off I went to join the team of Scene at 6.30. The only problem was that on my very first day when I arrived nobody had bothered to tell Mike Murphy, who was the Producer of Scene at 6.30, of this new recruit so I walked into the office and it was basically ‘Who are you and why are you here?’ And he wasn’t very pleased when I said, “Well, Sidney Bernstein sent me!” So it needed some sorting out!
Something was happening with the Transport General Workers’ Union and Frank Cousins and he said, ‘I want a 3-minute profile of Frank Cousins on the programme at 6.30 tonight. That was my instruction. I thought, well, how do I go about this? I’d never even seen a television script! I had a vague notion that the words that people spoke were down on the right-hand side of the page and there were all sorts of technical stuff that I didn’t understand on the left-hand side of the page so before starting the script I looked around the newsroom to see if I could find somebody that might help me put a script together and the only person who looked friendly was a very attractive girl who was sitting at her desk and I asked her if she would show me a script and she did and to cut a long story short, reader, I married her a little later – that was Anthea, my wife – and she showed me how to do my first script, she showed me where Telecine was and where to get hold of a bit of film, where Video was and how to get hold of a bit of video and I stuck together 3 minutes profile of Frank Cousins on my first day. From then on I got on very well in the Scene at 6.30 team. I think after about 6 months Mike Murphy left to move on to other things and (maybe it was a bit more than 6 months, maybe it was a year or so) and I found myself the Producer of Scene at 6.30 which I ran for maybe a year or so.
Then they thought it was time – or I thought it was time anyway – that I moved onto Network programmes so they gave me What the Papers Say to produce and a programme called All Our Yesterdays with somebody whose name…
Brian Inglis. Sorry, Brian! And that was a programme that looked back at what was happening 25 years ago that particular week and, of course, 25 years previously was still in the middle of the Second World War so I was madly researching, with Brian, all the Pathé newsreels and what-not and what was happening 25 years earlier and I became a real expert in that period of the Second World War. The trouble is I came off the programme before the war ended so I never really found out who won but nevertheless became an expert in the actual period. And of course, producing What the Papers Say was great fun as well. It’s amazingly still going. It amazingly still has the title music that I chose for it! That was a very simple job. I mean it just involved having a team of regular presenters across the political spectrum. I remember one of the presenters I inherited was Nigel Lawson, up-and-coming Tory MP and I got very cross with Nigel because every time he did the programme it became more and more of a Tory political broadcast. In the end I said to him, “Nigel, you really can’t just keep digging out stories that are favourable to the Tory party. Could we do things a little differently?” He got very cross with me and said, ‘I am the writer and presenter of this programme and I will do it my way.’ So the next time he did it I said, “Sorry, we don’t need you any more, Nigel.” And then I got a call a couple of days later from Sidney Bernstein who said, ‘What’s happened? My friend, Nigel Lawson, has told me that he’s been fired from this programme?’ I said, “Yes, well, but look at the scripts that he’s been delivering!” Sidney said, ‘Yes, well, we’ll have to find some way of sorting it out.’ The following day he sent me a copy of the letter which he had sent to Nigel Lawson which said, ‘Dear Nigel, I am sorry but I never interfere with my producer’s decisions.’ which, of course, was an outright absolute lie because all of Granada was built on the fact that there was a very very close editorial connection between the people at the top and the people at the bottom. I mean the people in the middle, the producers worked directly to Dennis Forman, Sidney Bernstein and you made your decisions in accordance with what you felt they would agree with. So, anyway, I got away with that and that was really my introduction into Granada.
So would you say that they did interfere?
Interference is a kind of very negative word. They didn’t interfere in the sense of saying, ‘I want you to do this’ or ‘I want you to do that’ but it was a very tight-knit company at the top. It was a company that was made by, developed by, formed by Sidney Bernstein and Dennis Forman. Both of them on the left politically. Both of them highly socially-conscious and they very deliberately chose around them people of the same outlook, the same view so that I can’t remember a single instance when they would say, ‘I want you to do this’. It was always ‘Shall we do this?’ ‘Could we do it?’ ‘Should we do it in this way rather than that way?’ This gave producers like myself (particularly when it came on to running World in Action) enormous strength because you knew that you had the top people in the company behind you. You knew, first of all, that you were working for journalists, programme-makers themselves, people who made films, made programmes and written journalism. You weren’t working for accountants and businessmen and even when we made horrible mistakes and there were significant mistakes that I made in my career, I might be called up and bollocked by them for making the mistake but they would defend us publically so interference is the wrong word but working collegially together was the way I experienced Granada.
OK. Let’s just have a little bit about the Scene at 6.30 and the kind of mix of items in the programme. I always remember it as a programme that was very much Northwest, very much Manchester, a very Northern programme.
It was certainly a very Northern programme both in its accents and in its, of course it was a regional programme and its mandate was to be a regional programme and to reflect and report on the region. Considerable efforts were made to take the programme outside Manchester itself. Particularly there was quite a lot of political pressure to do items in Liverpool because Liverpool always felt left out and very always second-rate compared with Manchester but inevitably because our studios were in Manchester and because it was a daily programme that meant going out, usually short distances, doing things locally that Manchester was very much the centre of the programme. And I mean it had a very irreverent northern anti-metropolitan feel about it. I think it made people feel this is a good place to be and we’ve got our own voice. That was the critical thing. It was a Voice of the North.
And no doubt, I assume, sat alongside other regional programming?
Yes, it did sit alongside other regional programming but at the beginning when I was there, there was less regional programming than developed a little bit later when we started developing regional current affairs strands, regional Arts strands and even regional light entertainment strands. I had, initially, less to do with that. I had my hands full with the Scene at 6.30. And ones’ hands really were full because with a team like Grundy and Mike Scott, Truman and so on, these were very big figures! I mean they were stars! They were stars in the Northwest and I discovered a star for myself. Alongside the Scene at 6.30 team was the News Desk, producing its little 3-minute bulletins and producing those bulletins, day after day, was Bob Greaves and Bob Greaves, I thought, was a very funny man, a very clever man, a delight in the office and I thought why isn’t this guy on television? And so I thrust Bob Greaves onto television, onto Scene at 6.30 and before very long Bob effectively took over the Scene at 6.30 as people like Brian Truman and Chris Kelly moved away to do other things. Mike Scott moved away from emphasis on presenting into becoming an Executive Producer. Bob really became the voice and the face of the North.
After Scene at 6.30 where did you move to then and what years are we talking about now?
Well, from Scene at 6.30 it was 1966 to ’68 that I was at Scene at 6.30 then, for a fairly short period, doing What the Papers Say and All Our Yesterdays in ’68 and through to the summer of ’69. And then I was recruited onto the World in Action team as a producer.
You worked then on World in Action for quite a number of years?
Well, I worked as a producer on World in Action for actually quite a short period, from ’69 through to ’71 and then in ’71 I took over as editor of World in Action, which I was, I think, until about 1974 so it was something like 3 years running around all over the world making programmes and then 3 years of sending other people to do things that I would have much preferred to do myself and holding that team together and trying to maintain the astonishingly high standards that World in Action had achieved. Certainly when I first joined World in Action I felt absolutely at sea because these were programmes that were made by a combination of extremely good filmmakers – Leslie Woodhead, Mike Beckham – people who were absolutely immersed in the grammar of film, working with extremely good journalists – like Jeremy Wallington and Gus MacDonald.
John Burt, was he there?
And John Burt. When I joined World in Action the two newly appointed editors of World in Action, joint editors, were John Burt and Gus MacDonald. John Burt was, I think, only about 23 when he was appointed editor of World in Action and Gus was a little older but had already begun to make his name in journalism. Anyway, these two were the editors of World in Action. Neither of them were filmmakers but they relied on the kind of Leslie Woodhead tradition of filmmaking. I was really sent out to make films and I had no idea how to make films so what I did was to rely very very heavily on brilliant camera men and brilliant sound recordists and the technical team, working with people like George Jessie Turner and some of the camera men who became really big figures in the film world later – Dick Pope and so on – working with these camera men I had to learn very quickly how to make films and then working with extremely good film editors – Kelvin Hendrie – had to learn how to edit films and put films together. I could bring some journalistic skill to the telling of a story and I was somewhat old fashioned in that I believed in telling a story in a fairly linear fashion with a beginning, a middle and an end and was confused by the way in which filmmakers jumbled it all up and tried to tell the story visually rather than verbally so I had to learn fairly quickly to combine these very different skills. It was a wonderful apprenticeship being tossed into the middle of it and having to find my own way.
Can you remember any specific programmes that you worked on that you were thrilled by or disappointed with?
Oh, I can remember plenty that I was disappointed with but the two strands that I tended to make my own were Films in Northern Ireland (that was the first one) because the so-called ‘Irish Troubles’ or the ‘English Troubles’ as far as the Irish were concerned were all bubbling up at this time from 1969 onwards and I had a peculiar ‘in’ into Northern Ireland in that my religious upbringing was in a fundamentalist bible group called the Plymouth Brethren whose theology was very similar to that of Ian Paisley. Now I had long out-grown the Paisleyite theology but nevertheless, I knew my bible as well as Ian Paisley and when I went over and started interviewing Ian Paisley I think he was, I mean he regarded journalists as Fenian Communists or a little worse than Fenians and even worse than Communists and he discovered this strange journalist who was clearly (as he would put it) a total lefty but nevertheless could speak his language and understand his language and I got on quite well with Paisley. Paisley was a man who, after 10 o’ clock at night in the Europa Hotel, could be extremely entertaining, could be very funny and whose company you could enjoy. So that gave me an entry into that side of the Northern Ireland divide. The day that I joined World in Action the team was sent out to do (Brian Armstrong was the producer), sent out to make a film on the Shankill Road about Belfast Protestants, working-class Protestants, the kind of life they lived, the kind of houses they lived in, the kind of working-class poverty and solidarity of Shankill Road. Having made that film I was given a week to go out and make the mirror film, the one about the Catholics on the Fouls Road, and of course the two films were remarkably similar! Both films were about working-class people in working-class homes with working-class solidarity, very friendly, always inviting you in for cups of tea, hating each other but looking identical, sounding identical and really, the two films together basically said ‘What is this all about?’ ‘How is it that people of the same class, the same background can be so antagonistic towards each other?’ I remember Hartley Shawcross standing up in the House of Commons after our second programme and denouncing Granada’s Marxism for this praise for the working-classes in Northern Ireland. As things got worse in Northern Ireland I found myself in much deeper water doing films about the IRA [Irish Republican Army] – two of them banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority [IBA], as it was then.
Why were they banned?
One film was called Across the Border and the main sequence in that film was of Sinn Féin’s annual party conference, their Ardfheis, their annual party conference. We were given exclusive entry to that party conference and I think what the IBA really hated was that Sinn Féin was portrayed as a political party having a political debate and that wasn’t how Sinn Féin was perceived at all by the British. Sinn Féin was perceived as thugs with balaclavas pulled down over their heads, carrying guns and throwing bombs and the respectability of a political party was an anathema and IBA banned that film and it was never shown. And there was another that I did which was called The Propaganda War and basically argued that the British were losing the propaganda war to the IRA and I remember that we had several days of fierce argument with the IBA, which required changes to the programme and in the end we refused to make the changes to the programme so they banned the programme. But there are other programmes that I made in Northern Ireland that did go out and nobody else in World in Action particularly wanted to do programmes about Northern Ireland because I think people just found the whole situation so utterly un-English, so inexplicable that it wasn’t a field which attracted programme makers. That surprised me because it certainly attracted me so that was one strand of films that I did.
Another strand of films that I got involved in but I think this was really something that Gus MacDonald initiated was we needed to meet the criticism that it was very easy for us to go out to the United States, say, a very very free country and make films very very critical of the United States and very critical of Western Foreign Policy, make them in the States because it was such a free and open country and you couldn’t go and do the same kind of thing in the Soviet Union or the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe and to meet that kind of criticism we started making films where we went in undercover to Czechoslovakia, to Poland, into the Soviet Union itself to make films with dissident movements within those countries and undercover filming became a strand with which I got involved with. On one occasion I was taking a holiday with the family. We were camping on the shores of Lake Windermere and in those days before mobile phones I said to Anthea, my wife, and the children “I had better just go into Granada to pick up my mail and find out what’s happening.” I went in to Granada and found out that they wanted to send me out to Uganda and so I had to get back to Lake Windermere and unfortunately everybody was out and I left a note on the tent saying, “Gone to Uganda. Back in a fortnight!” That was the last Anthea heard of me for a fortnight! It turned out to be an extremely difficult film to make. We had already made one film called The Man who Stole Uganda (it was about Idi Amin) so we couldn’t possibly go in as Granada Television so we created a little company called ACE Films, ‘East and West, ACE is Best’ was our slogan and we got into Uganda, supposedly to make a little tourist film and we were there talking to the Uganda nations who were being expelled at the time. Unfortunately we were rumbled and I got a call from a senior civil servant who said, ‘We know who you are.’ and he said ‘They know who you are and my advice is to get on the next plane out of Entebbe and get home!’ Well, knowing Idi Amin’s penchant for boiling his enemies in large pots and not really wanting that to be the fate of either myself or my crew and, also, having by that time quite a lot of film, we got out of Entebbe on the next plane and got back and made a very strong film. So that’s the kind of thing that I was doing when I was making films for World in Action.
Am I right in remembering that you almost got blown up in Northern Ireland?
There were two occasions. One when I was staying at the Europa Hotel and my bedroom happened to be right next to one of the loos on the third floor and in the middle of that morning a large hole was blown through the wall by a bomb that had been placed by the IRA in the Europa Hotel. The glass windows came shattering down onto our crew car outside. None of us were hurt but that was a fairly unpleasant experience. Possibly a worse experience was simply being in the middle of a terrifying riot and battle between the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] and the IRA group, a Catholic Republican group in Londonderry and it is something that I had dreams about, nightmares about for quite a long time afterwards. Standing in the middle of the main square in Londonderry and this vast mob bearing down on us on one side and the Police bearing down in the middle and you think this is not really where I want to be! I wasn’t hurt and both groups clashed right by the side of us and you got a fantastic film of that but it felt a very dangerous place to be. One of the problems I had was never really explaining back home exactly what I was doing and exactly where I was but the trouble is Anthea would then see the film a little bit later and sort of think, well, where were you?! Where were you?! “Oh, I was alright! I was OK! No problem!” And it is remarkable that very very few of us, very very few of us ever got hurt in those situations.
The films that you were making about the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, the undercover films – did they morph into the drama documentaries?
How did that happen?
Yes, they did. So there were two ways of responding to the criticism that films about the Eastern Bloc and so on couldn’t be made with the ease with which we made films in America and one was the going in undercover with miniature equipment, miniature cameras and so on and the other way was dramatising some of the trials of dissidents and that way we needed to get hold of transcripts of those trials and then re-enact them with actors and that was really the beginning of getting into drama documentary ways of presenting these stories. That began within World in Action. A little later it branched out into its own genre.
And was that you and Leslie Woodhead?
Yes. After my 3 or 4 years of running World in Action as Editor, Leslie Woodhead and I, together, formed the Granada Drama Documentary Group (just the two of us initially) and the first major film that we made was a film called Invasion, about the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, all filmed in Manchester with cardboard tanks, Leslie directing, I wrote the script and produced and that’s when Eva Kolochova, a Czech student who’d come over to Cambridge and then joined Granada as a researcher – her language skills were just what we needed – and the three of us really made that film Invasion and out of that developed the Drama Documentary Unit which was mainly again myself and Leslie commissioning drama documentaries from other directors and writers although we rather selfishly picked the best ones to do ourselves! That was one of the extraordinary things about Granada. It remained true right the way through to the end of my career with Granada when I went on from doing drama documentaries till I became head of current affairs and basically ran the whole of the current affairs department, which was World in Action and documentaries and drama documentaries and then after that, developed towards the end of my career with Granada a strand called ‘Celebration’ which was Arts programmes. But in all those strands as I kind of, if you like, moved up the ladder and became more of an Executive Producer, at Granada it was still possible for me to do what I wanted to do more than anything else which was to make films myself, write the script and direct and to be absolutely hands on. It wasn’t always an easy thing to do. I mean if you are the boss and you decide that you are going to make this film rather than give it to somebody else and it doesn’t work out very well then you get it in the neck from the rest of the team! On the other hand, it worked out well enough, often enough for me to be able to continue to do that. I probably indulged myself too much when it came to the Arts programmes towards the end of my time before I took early retirement from Granada because I was really making films often about my favourite operas, my favourite music and enjoying the twilight of my career.
You’ve talked a little bit about the eclectic bunch of people who worked on World in Action. What was it like being editor of that programme and having to deal with these very clever but also people who could be very awkward, shall we say, to work with?
Yes, you’ve put it very well. They were very clever, very awkward, very eclectic, didn’t respond particularly to leadership. As far as they were concerned (as far as we were all concerned really) we were a collective. I didn’t have the man-management, personal management skills that I necessarily had to develop a little later when I was appointed head of current affairs and all the rest of it. And I didn’t handle some of the spiky, difficult situations within World in Action as well as I believe I would have done a little later. In particular, when I was appointed I was a very popular appointee because I was very much one of the boys. I was seen as somebody who was radical in politics, social justice issues and therefore would defend World in Action‘s track record in those things very strongly. Because I was popular in that way I feared I could easily be taken advantage of and I tended to be more prescriptive in the way that I wanted films made. Since I wanted really to make every film myself, I tended to be more prescriptive initially than I should have been in that I should have allowed for people to really do things their own way which often turned out to be better ways than I wanted to do it. So I did come to be seen as somebody who was too controlling and after 4 years of it, it seemed a jolly good idea to move on and do something else. By that time, the drama documentary strand, which I had helped to develop within World in Action was becoming the kind of thing that everybody was, the buzz genre, the new genre. And with all the arguments about whether it was a proper form of journalism or whether it was a proper form of dramatism and I enjoyed that controversy and I enjoyed developing that. I also went back to World in Action, I mean while making the drama documentaries there were World in Actions that I still wanted to make and Ray Fitzwater had taken over as Editor of World in Action and I went back and still made the occasional World in Action so that worked out well. And then, as I say, when Mike Scott became Programme Controller he appointed me as head of current affairs so I found myself back in control of World in Action – a little wiser than I had been a few years earlier.
And during this period when you are head of current affairs, you have the infamous Steel Papers. Can you tell us a little bit about that? The kind of backing you got from the company? I think was it Paul Flynn who made the programme?
That’s right, yes. What happened was that there was a strike at British Steel. British Steel was still a nationalised company and there were rumours that the management end of the dispute was being dictated by the Thatcher Government and these rumours were very strongly denied by the management of British Steel, Charles Villiers, the Chairman of British Steel. A very enterprising researcher, Paul Flynn, managed to get hold of the minutes and documented discussions within the Board Room of British Steel, brought them to Ray Fitzwater who brought them to me, I think. This was very early on, I had just been appointed as head of current affairs and brought them to me and said, ‘What do you think we should do about this?’ Well, we looked through the material and it seemed to us that there was absolutely conclusive proof that the Board was being directed straight from the Government despite their denial of that. So Ray, being the slightly cautious one, wanted to develop the story in traditional World in Action way which was basically to spend 2 weeks researching it, 2 weeks filming it and 2 weeks editing it and then it goes out. I thought that it was such an explosive political thing that we needed to get it out the following Monday (I think we were having this discussion on Friday) and to do that meant that we would need to book a studio which World in Action rarely did and make it as a studio programme. I think we had just appointed Tony Wilson as the anchor that we would use in those programmes which we did from the studio so poor Ray found himself in the situation where brand-new anchor, Tony Wilson, had been more or less thrust upon him and his head of department was saying, “Let’s get this out on Monday!” We decided that the only way we could do this was to tell Charles Villiers, Chairman of British Steel, that we had these papers and to invite him to come up to Manchester on Monday, do a live programme, a live interview with Tony Wilson. To our astonishment Charles Villiers agreed to do this so we were kind of suddenly landed with this quite explosive situation! We made the programme, the programme went out and Tony Wilson interviewed Villiers who was faced with these papers and nevertheless continued to deny that there was any Government involvement. What he wanted to know was where we had got hold of the papers so once he got back to London we received from their lawyers a demand that we return the papers to them. What was clear to us, however, was that each set of papers was marked in the corner with a code which would identify the source of the papers so what we did was to snip off the corners of the paper – obviously make our own photocopy but snip of the corners of the original – and then send them back to British Steel. Well that didn’t satisfy British Steel at all because they were out to find out which of their Board Members, as they believed, had leaked this material. So they took us to court and the court required us to send back the snippets that we’d got. Of course we told them that these had been destroyed. The case then went on to High Court, Lord Denning. 5 judges, 4 of whom found against us, in other words required us to name our source. Denning was for us but nevertheless was overruled (very rare occasion when Lord Denning was overruled) and all this was causing a great furore in the press. The Times came down very heavily in our favour, all the business about defending journalists’ sources and all the rest. In the end it all fizzled out when British Steel realised that Granada Management structure was such that only one person, Laurie Flynn, the researcher, actually knew who his source was and nobody else.
Was that true?
Yes. That was absolutely true. I had no idea who the source was. Paul wouldn’t tell me – not that I pressed him to but I mean he wouldn’t have told me – and he was the only one on the team who knew who the source was. And once British Steel cottoned on to the fact that they were suing the wrong people, if they had picked up Paul Flynn’s credit as Researcher at the end of the programme and gone for him, then they might have made a case but going for Granada was going for the company that didn’t actually have the information that they wanted. So they basically abandoned their demand and rather weakly claimed that they had found out who the source was so that it didn’t really matter. Now what I’m leaving out of the story was really the very tremendous pressure that Granada Management and really the whole of the Granada Group came under because we were warned by our own legal team that if Granada defied a court order then its assets could be sequestrated and effectively Granada could be closed down! Not even just Granada Television but the whole of the Granada Group. This went right up to the top obviously, to Dennis Forman as Managing Director, and to Cecil Bernstein who was then the Chair (Sidney Bernstein having retired) and they held firm. They were being advised by their lawyers – find out from your researcher who the source is and you must comply or you may have your assets sequestrated. They held firm and it was British Steel who blinked. I can’t imagine any other television company in those circumstances that would have held together under such threat but that was Granada! And it was really Dennis Forman. I mean Cecil was not quite the man who Sidney had been and Cecil was under immense pressure from other members of the Granada Group but it was Dennis who held him on line and we came through that.
Did he ever attempt to squeeze the information out of Paul?
Absolutely not! Dennis realised right from the beginning that Granada’s best defence was ‘We don’t know.’ But the weakness of ‘We don’t know’ is that the response can be, ‘Well, you should know and if a researcher is working for you, part of your staff, then you can require him to give you that information or be fired.’ So rather than go to court and say, ‘Sorry, we don’t know’ it was a question of saying, ‘No, we won’t do it.’ ‘No, we’re not going to co-operate with this.’ And as I say, that was the response to British Steel’s request and that was the response to the court’s request and it was the response to the Court of Appeal’s demand.
And this was all proved to be an expensive defence for Granada?
It was very very expensive but out of it came an Act of Parliament called, at the time, the Granada Act which put on the statute book a statutory defence of journalists’ right to protect their sources. That statute remains although by the time it went through it was watered down. There were so many caveats – National Security, Public Interest – so that the situation really remained as it is today. A general broad acceptance that journalists have a right to protect their sources but a clever lawyer can find loopholes in that.
I’ve seen a figure of six million pounds – is that…
I can’t remember. I’d be interested to know what that figure was but Granada certainly was prepared to go that far to protect its little World in Action team.
It’s interesting as a side issue that many years later when Steven Boulton was Editor of World in Action, Charles Allen said to him on his appointment, ‘We won’t have any more Steel Papers, will we, Steve?!’
Yes, Steve Boulton (no relation to me) would have, I’m sure, found an appropriate way to reply which would have left him open to do whatever was necessary.
Another thing that you did when you were head of current affairs was the introduction of the new technology in Liverpool, ENG [Electronic News Gathering], and the new technology high-tech newsroom.
Yes, that was a nightmare because if there was anybody in Granada who knew less about computers than I did, I’d have been interested to have found them! I was very very slow in picking up all that kind of technology and my mandate from David Plowright was ‘I want this to be the first, completely computerised newsroom in Europe’ or the World or whatever and having worked out what the words ‘computerised newsroom’ might mean I had the job of trying to make this happen. I went to 2 or 3 major IT companies and started talks with them about how we might do this and I found that I might just as well have been having conversations in Bulgarian or Sanskrit! I hadn’t the faintest idea really what they were talking about and I thought the only way in which I can really sort this out with myself is insisting we talk my language and so I said to him, “I want them to do this and that and I want it to do this and that and it doesn’t matter about that but this is the outcome that I want” and then we began to get somewhere. Rather than them telling me what they could do I told them what I needed. It helped a great deal that I found out that ITN [Independent Television News] were also moving to a completely computerised newsroom. I mean the idea was to make it completely paperless and, of course, that never happened but they were moving to completely computerise their newsroom and we found that we were both talking to the same company so that made it very much easier for me working with ITN to move towards the transformation of the newsroom to old-fashioned paper to IT that we made such a big fuss about when we opened Liverpool. In fact, I mean of course all sorts of things went wrong and we found ourselves reverting to paper quite quickly and the move into computerisation was gradual but nevertheless we made a big song and dance about it. And it was very good politics as far as Granada and Liverpool were concerned because it meant that Granada had a presence in Liverpool. Liverpool had always moaned about being left out and being second best to Manchester so it did quite a lot to improve Granada’s standing there. Then we went on to produce another electronic news studio in Lancaster which lasted till as long as we got the franchise renewed and then it quietly disappeared!
There was one in Chester as well, wasn’t there?
There was, yes. The Chester one came just after my time.
So we are presumably getting towards the back end of your Granada career. Tell us about those last couple of years and the changes that you saw in the company and how that affected you personally.
The late ’80s things really began to change in Granada. I suppose the biggest manifestation of the change was that for all the years I had been working there I’d been vaguely aware that up on the top floor there was a whole lot of accountants you occasionally saw coming through the door in their grey suits and ties and dressed very very differently from programme makers and World in Action lot. You saw them go in and go upstairs and you didn’t really know quite what they did and they never had any interaction with you at all. I should say that in the years I ran World in Action I never never saw a budget, never looked at a budget! At the end of every year Tom Gill would say to me ‘David, we are running a little bit under budget, can you spend a little more on programmes so that we can make a better case for a 2% increase next year’ and so we’d do the best we could with that. But I never had any budget worries at all. I never knew how much the programmes cost.
You had no idea at all?!
It’s astonishing, I had no idea how much the programme, I mean you could calculate the cost of programmes of course in all sorts of ways as to what you included above the line and below the line and all that but I really had very little idea as to what the programmes cost and I didn’t have to bother to look at budgets. Tom Gill would keep an eye on the budget and let me know if we were overspending or under spending but we basically knew that we could spend what needed to be spent. In fact one of the jokes at the time was that Anthea was on Coronation Street, I was on World in Action, Anthea was the one who was making Granada all the money and I was the one who was spending all of Granada’s money! This, as I say, was changing towards the end of the ’80s when we began to find that some of these finely grey-suited accountants were no longer all grouped together on the top floor but you had accountants in your office, in your department and suddenly we were being made much more aware of budget restrictions. We had enormous freedom in each department in deciding what we were going to make, when we were going to make it, how we were going to make it and there began to be a move towards a kind of centralisation of you were not making decisions about what programmes you were making, you were making submissions about what programmes you wanted to make and you were making submissions to what we called the Programme Prevention Department because so many questions came back – ‘Why do we need to do this? Wouldn’t it be better to do it this way?’ – from people who were not programme makers and had no programme making experience and so the whole kind of accountancy business ethos was subverting the programme making journalistic decision-making that had been so vital apart in the way in which Granada had worked. The irony is that it was David Plowright who eventually was fired for not responding to the Granada Group’s Board requirement that he adopt a much more businesslike open approach to programme making. It was David who very early on saw the way things were going to go with more and more channels opening up, with more and more competition, with a thinner spread of advertising that it was necessary to start imposing disciplines that had not been imposed on programme makers before so initially we really quite resented David Plowright for giving way towards these pressures. It was only later on that we discovered the strength of those pressures on him, the degree to which he had resisted those pressures and worked to defend the interests of programme making.
So that was part of my, I’d always decided quite early on that I would retire at 55. I really didn’t have any ambition to go on and become Programme Controller, run the company. I had too many other interests! I was writing books, I was thoroughly enjoying my family. I had my nice 75-acre farm up in the Yorkshire Dales – where we are sitting now – and I enjoyed my weekends up here and I was not one of those who spent the evenings at Granada in the local bars discussing, politicking, networking and all that. I kind of worked, did my job, loved doing it and then went home and there were just too many other things I wanted to do in life. So I had always decided that I would go at 55 and my 55th birthday was approaching and I began to feel that Granada was not the place it had been. And I, personally, from a selfish point of view, wasn’t having the same freedoms to do what I wanted as I had done and I thought, yeah, this is the time when I moved off. It was a good time to move off because I had got involved in all sorts of other industry stuff after that.
So what year would that be?
Can we talk briefly about Granada as a company. What kind of company was it? Was it a paternalistic company? Was it a difficult company? This is the pre-Charles Allen era.
Yeah. First of all it was a family company. The Bernsteins were the bosses. The Bernsteins made the decisions. Sidney was the one with the social conscience who determined that Granada would be better than the BBC [British Broadcasting Company] at producing its news programmes, its current affairs programmes, and in developing a social justice direction. Cecil was the one who was the real money-maker, who developed the light entertainment programmes, the quiz programmes, Coronation Street, the programmes which really brought in the money. It was a very very good combination. They, together, brought in Dennis Forman and in the early years it was the two Bernsteins and Dennis Forman who, as a trio, ran the company, knew everything that was going on in the company, made all the appointments in the company, appointed people who they got on with and who could get on with them. What this meant was that people said that, ‘If your face doesn’t fit then you are out, as far as the Bernsteins are concerned’ and there was something in that. Those of us whose faces did fit were lucky. Those of us who shared the values of the Bernsteins and Dennis Forman, we were the ones who prospered in the company but that could be perceived by others as paternalistic, as a kind of benevolent despotism but it wasn’t the way I perceived it. I perceived it as working with people with whom I had a shared set of values, a shared set of objectives, people who supported me through the thick and thin and therefore to people to whom I was loyal through thick and thin. When the Bernsteins went, when Dennis, when his power waned then that’s when the company began to change and became a less comfortable company to work for because it became like any other company, like any other television company.
There was always a view that the company was unashamedly leftwing, it was quite radical and in a way you epitomised that. You came from a radical background, you’d worked on Tribune and other people like Gus MacDonald had also worked on Tribune. I mean as a manager you would have been responsible presumably for hiring people, what Norman Tebbit called, I think he said ‘Granada was run by a bunch of Trotskyites!’
Ah, yes, a bunch of Trotskyites was something of an exaggeration but it was certainly true that, as I’ve put it, people with a strong sense of social justice were the people who found Granada a congenial place and the kind of people who, those who ran Granada, found congenial. Certainly from when I first moved from being a press officer and moved up to become a journalist I had all sorts of naive notions that I would have wonderful opportunities of spreading my leftwing views. I was very quickly disabused of that in the sense that it became quite clear to me that it would really be very counterproductive to come blazing out with labour party slogans or leftwing slogans or singing the red flag or whatever! And I became a convert to the notion of the necessity of due impartiality in matters of politics and economics and so it wasn’t that I found myself restraining and enforcing an impartiality because I was required to do so when I was running current affairs, it was because I was genuinely persuaded that without the restraints of due impartiality you could have a highly politicised broadcasting system. A system like there is in the States with the Fox Corporation and where rightwing moneyed interests would be more likely to take over the airwaves than those of us who were lefties. So within that constraint of due impartiality we had to work out as cunningly as we could how we pursued a social justice agenda without breaking those disciplinary requirements and of course sometimes we were hauled up for being too biased. I mean we produced all the argument about well, some programmes are leftwing but then they can be balanced by programmes that give a different viewpoint. I think we were cleverer at finding ways of pursuing a social justice agenda within the rules.
JJ: I wanted to pick up on what you were talking a little bit about before we stopped. You were talking about how you aimed to be impartial and I was interested that you were somebody, I think, who came to television with strong political and ethical principles and I wonder if there are examples that you felt that through your programme making you had perhaps changed or influenced peoples’ perceptions of issues or things that were going on in the world? Do you feel that you have a personal legacy?
DB: I don’t have as personal a legacy as I would have liked to have had in that but there were certain issues where you could quite significantly and quite legitimately override the impartiality. I’ll give you two examples. One – we ran a series on torture around the world. Now there was no way in which we were going to say, “Well, we’ve got to be impartial between the torturer and the tortured.” We’ve got to interview the torturers as well as the tortured. We’ve got to get their viewpoint. In fact in one programme that Mike Ryan produced for me about torture in Greece, he did get some quite remarkable interviews with torturers who had been trained by being tortured themselves so they were able to talk about the experience of torture from both ways. But nevertheless we were able to make a series of programmes demonstrating the continued existence of torture in several European countries and they were straight campaigning programmes with a particular aim and a particular direction, where there was no requirement to be impartial and I remember that the one that we did about torture in Turkey resulted in Turkey being expelled from the Council of Europe and they came back into it about 10 years later. So there were those kinds of programmes. There were programmes about homelessness where we were clearly looking at it from the point of view of those who were made homeless and so by being on the side of the people, on the side of the victim, on the side of those who were clearly the underdogs, it was in that sense that World in Action was, if you like, leftwing. And we had this slogan (no doubt not very original) we were there to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ and I think that is quite a good summary of what World in Action was doing.
Another example was a programme that I did called Rhodesia’s Last White Christmas, query, where Ian Smith was about to declare UDI [Unilateral Declaration of Independence] and it looked as if there might be a massive rebellion in Rhodesia with the blacks taking over. And it was a programme that was unashamedly anti Ian Smith, UDI and what he was doing. After the programme Ian Smith wrote a letter to Sidney Bernstein saying how disgraceful this programme was in that it only gave the one point of view and Sidney (again, one of those occasions where he called me into his office) said, ‘How do we reply to this?’ No, this wasn’t Sidney on that occasion, this was Dennis Forman. Dennis Forman called me into the office and said, ‘How do we reply to this?’ I made my case and Dennis said, ‘OK, you reply to Ian Smith and put your case’. Well, on that occasion I wrote a letter that was perhaps a little intemperate in which I basically said on a issue like this, on a issue of race and of self-determination I would no more feel obliged to be impartial than if I were making a programme during the war and required to be impartial between Hitler and Churchill. Well, Ian Smith came back with an outraged letter to Dennis and Dennis called me up again and said, ‘I’m not sure that was the tone of the reply that we agreed! David, I’ve got a suggestion for you. Write your letters in the white heat of anger but have a little post-box in your office in which you post it and then think about it overnight and then maybe post the letter – or not – the following day.’ It was actually very good advice. There were those issues where the strict requirements of due impartiality were not pressed upon us.
JJ: Can you tell me a little bit about how you contributed to the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher?
DB: Yes. It was Linda MacDougall, the wife of a Labour MP, who was the producer on World in Action who came to me and said, ‘Look, Margaret Thatcher is challenging Ted Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party.’ We all thought this was a great joke that this woman, who had not made a particularly strong mark in politics, should consider herself of leadership potential and Linda said, ‘Why don’t we make a programme about her? Maybe follow her around for a week while she’s campaigning for the leadership.’ I said, “Well, I don’t think there’s the remotest chance that she will agree to let us do that! She will know of World in Action‘s reputation. She will probably know that you are the wife of a Labour MP but we’ll go along together and see her at the House of Commons and we’ll put it to her.” So we went along, the two of us – I think it was just the two of us – and we had an interview with Margaret Thatcher and she was very charming and we were saying, “What we would like to do is to follow you, be with you in the week that you are campaigning. We really need full access to you.” That was what I thought was going to be the sticking point. I thought she might sort of say, ‘Well, you can film me doing this and film me doing that.’ I thought she would want to control but she basically said, ‘I think that is a wonderful idea and I’m very happy to go along with that.’ Well we came away and we couldn’t really believe that we had got this access! We thought, well this will be an absolutely wonderful film because it will show Margaret Thatcher up for the kind of person she really is. And even as Linda filmed and I saw the rushes, I thought, yeah, this is going to be a splendid film that is not going to do Margaret Thatcher any good at all. When the film went out we were surprised that the reaction was not quite the reaction that we had expected. What we had really completely misfired on was that the constituency for electing the leader of the Tory Party was the Tory MPs at the time and however absurd Margaret Thatcher might appear to be to some of us out in the country, there was a strong sense of the nanny, the strong nanny that appealed to a lot of Tory MPs and it became clear that a lot of Tory MPs loved the film and perhaps that made a difference in her selection as the leader. That was just one of those that was fun to do but misfired.
JJ: As Editor in World in Action, we’ve talked a little bit about managing the team but it must have been quite a complex, logistical process and I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about how you chose stories and worked out what story was going to be filmed etc.
DB: At any one time there was somewhere between 12 and 15 (maybe even a few more) producers, directors and researchers on World in Action and, of course, we had very regular meetings to discuss programme ideas and there was a quite fierce competition among the producers and researchers to put forward ideas that they would want to pursue and these were all tossed onto the table and debated and essentially I had the job of selecting those stories that I wanted to pursue. Always selecting rather more than I thought would actually reach the air because there were risks with some programmes, particularly strongly investigative programmes, that you would never quite be able to copper-bottom your research and it would be unwise to put the film out in such circumstances and I can think of circumstances where maybe 6 months of research with a couple of people working on it full time failed to produce the copper-bottoming that was required and we simply abandoned the film. Something that I think would simply not happen nowadays. It would never be allowed to go that far. But yes, it was a very complex, logistical operation to keep a number of balls in the air at any one time and there were occasions when a Monday was looming up and there was still 2 or 3 programmes that were not quite there but you really needed one of them for Monday and then you really had to bully somebody into sort of saying, “Sorry, but I want your programme on Monday!” and they’d have to speed up and get it done which nearly always happened. I always used to keep at least one ready-made programme that was not particularly topical and keep it in the drawer so that if we found ourselves very close to a Monday and a programme not quite ready then we could drop that in. Yes, it was complex but it was fun! We worked on the basis that on average, an average World in Action film would be given 2 weeks to research, up to 2 weeks in shooting it and then 2 weeks in editing but of course programmes like Ray Fitzwalter’s Poulson Investigations took many months to come to fruition and there were other programmes like the British Steel programme which had to be whipped up in a weekend. There were even sometimes film programmes where the idea emerged on a Friday, filming on Saturday, editing on Sunday and Monday and that was it! But on average we allowed a 6 week schedule for making each programme.
JJ: Presumably in addition to the producers and researchers there were other people in the team who contributed to the success of the programme who were perhaps not on the production side but kept the wheels kind of turning?
DB: Well, the ideas for the programmes and the responsibility for making the programmes was obviously with the producers, directors and the researchers but World in Action was blessed with a marvellous team of very gifted camera men, sound recordists and technicians who were as dedicated to the World in Action ethos as the producers and the directors and that would go for PAs, it would go for the secretarial team. World in Action occupied a corridor and an office at the end that was isolated off really from the rest of the building. It was very much its own company of comrades and it felt quite distinct and apart really from the rest of Granada. Every now and then there were requests and demands that somebody from World in Action might be seconded to some other programme and that was bitterly resisted – people did not want to move out of the little World in Action enclave. Running the whole operation organisationally was Tom Gill who was marvellous because he did the basic disciplinary job which it would have been fatal for the editor to try and do. I mean disciplinary in the sense of saying, ‘You are not going to get another £3,000 for your film! You’ve already had twice as much film as you’re supposed to have! No, you’re not going to get another couple of days filming!’ He would lay down the law because he was so important to World in Action. He was Mr World in Action in many ways. People went along with his Sergeant Major discipline.
JJ: Are you alright for a couple of very short questions, just to finish? You talked a little bit about introducing ENG and technical changes and I wondered if that presented you with any challenges in terms of Union resistance to those kinds of changes and how you dealt with that?
DB: No. There were no challenges then that I remember because we made it our business to talk through with the Unions every change that we proposed and by this time Granada had a reasonably well organised Personnel (I don’t think they were called Human Resources then) Department that really professionally and skilfully undertook the work of liaising with the Unions, which had been a very amateurish affair for many years. One of the problems was that as producers we were members of the same Union, the ACTT [Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians], as the camera men, sound recordists, technicians and that sometimes meant a real conflict of interests. As a producer you sometimes wanted to press for overtime, say, or you might want to press for a particular situation where an absolute minimum of crewing was necessary for the result that you wanted, perhaps in difficult circumstances. I mean you are not going to take a crew of 8 people (and that was the size of the crew that we started with in World in Action) into Greece to make an undercover film about torture and so you’ve really got to negotiate those matters with the Union. The problems that we tended to have with the Union were when we moved into Studio where there was a completely different group of technicians who were not part of the World in Action ethos. Within the World in Action ethos we had very few problems. I think we had very few problems because the company basically accepted most Union demands, I mean it was absurd that we had 8 people on a crew flying first class round the world! It was ridiculously expensive! I remember taking a Sparks with us for a fortnight to Australia and everything was filmed out in the open and he didn’t do any work at all and we knew it was going to be that way and we tried to negotiate with the Union that we didn’t need a Sparks but no, so he had a wonderful holiday! A wonderful holiday!
Another thing, mentioning holiday, I would say it was always very important to me that when I was taking a crew abroad I always wanted to work in an extra couple of days so that we could all have a really good time whilst we were out there, particularly if it was really exotic places and we could sort of work that in on the budget but I probably became less enamoured of that when I was editing World in Action and wanted to impose a bit more discipline!
JJ: And just finally, you talked a little bit before about Liverpool perhaps being a bit resentful about Granada and its Manchester base. So do you think that Granada was a truly regional company? Would you describe it as a Manchester company or a regional company or a national company? What do you think was kind of paramount?
DB: Well, Granada wanted to see itself as – and I think it became through World in Action particularly – a very national company that spoke nevertheless with a distinctive voice and that distinctive voice tended to be a Northern voice. That Northern voice was primarily the voice of Manchester because that is where we were based but the area that Granada served changed because when I first joined Granada, Granada covered Yorkshire as well, right the way over to Scarborough and the east coast and we very very rarely got over to the east coast which is one reason why Yorkshire resentment resulted in Yorkshire being taken off us at that franchise renewal. So I think Liverpool had a legitimate grievance. Part of the grievance was simply that they were by far the largest city in the UK that had no television centre there and part of it was just the ancient rivalry and jealously of Manchester having all the goodies but we did really try to remedy that with the Liverpool newsroom so long as it lasted.
JJ: OK. Thank you.
SK: That’s great. No, that’s wonderful, thank you.[End of Recording 2] [Transcribed by V. Whymant, August 2015]